real life

'I went undercover in an S&M cult for a day for a month’s salary.'

Is there a job in your past you’re not exactly proud of? Haven’t we all turned a few colourful corners during our careers in the interest of economic survival or when travelling?

I’ve known friends who have packed supermarket shelves at night, worked in a pineapple-canning factory, as an artist’s model and as a “fairy” in a retail store to earn some extra bucks.

Career detours are sometimes a necessity when travelling, getting back to work after raising children or time as a full time carer.

For me it was going “undercover” with a cult in Ireland. I had to dress as a schoolgirl St Trinian’s style and work as a scullery maid when not in the classroom. Let me tell you, the years have not dimmed the pain of getting caned across the palm.

The original St Trinians. Image: Tumblr.

I found myself in plenty of interesting places during my days as a news journalist but I had always played it straight. Highlights that come to mind include a coffee with a very handsome Pierce Brosnan, landing on a British aircraft carrier in a helicopter and trying on a Harry Winston-designed diamond necklace worth more than $2 million (it made be dizzy – literally).

Alas, not every assignment was so exciting, which brings me to a time London when things were economically bleak. I was offered a fee equivalent to a month’s salary, plus ongoing work, if I spent 24 hours inside a gothic tale.

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The offer came through the late Ian Markham-Smith, a true tabloid warrior who I had worked with in Hong Kong. Sean Penn once punched Ian while he tried to talk to the actor’s then fiancé, Madonna. TIME called it one of the “Top 10 celebrity/paparazzi showdowns” ever.

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Anyhoo ... Ian wanted me to team up with another 20-something reporter, Jacqui. She had arranged for us to stay as paying guests in a crumbling manor used as a school for grown-ups wanting to taste Victorian life and the end of a whip. It was located in the fishing village of Burtonport on the wild northwest coast of Ireland.

Our cover story: we would stay just the one night, but would return in the spring if we enjoyed our stay. The “school” attracted S&M tourists from around the world, but the women supposedly also ran a desktop publishing operation. The trip was supposed to produce a hot read for more than 1.5 million readers on a cold winter’s Sunday.

The “school” attracted S&M tourists from around the world. Note: Not the actual school. Image: iStock.

I took the gig, but I felt bad about it. What did I care if people wanted to pay for S&M fantasy turned reality as long as they were all consenting adults? However, jobs were thin on the ground so I flew to Ireland with Jacqui and a photographer. The “snapper” would double as our muscle and watch out for us via his telephoto lens from his vantage point in a paddock next to the manor house.

“Miss Scarlett”, a somber figure in black Victorian garb and hair pulled back in a severe bun, met us at the door. She asked us to step into the parlor to chat about our experiences with corporeal punishment. Jacqui told a story about getting hit with a sand shoe during a gym class in the UK and I lamented that corporeal punishment was outlawed in Australian schools.

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Miss Scarlett bought our lame stories and showed us to our room up three flights of creaking stairs. It was off-season and the house was freezing, so I guess she was desperate for business. We were told to pick out a school uniform – I found one that hung to mid-shin. She said there was no electricity, phone, tv or radio. We were to use hurricane lamps and candles for light, a coal fuelled stove for heat and a wood fired stove for cooking. Remember, we were paying for this experience (well, the newspaper was).

There were rules: we could not use any word coined after 1930 (try that some time). We would attend one school session where Latin would be taught. For the rest of the time, we were to stay in the kitchen with the door closed except when serving meals or doing chores that included shoveling coal into buckets and chopping wood by candlelight. The photographer later told us seeing a candlelit silhouette and what was obviously an axe had posed quite a dilemma for him. However, he didn’t want to ruin a good story by coming to our rescue.

Miss Scarlett told us about a woman who lived in a room under the stairs who we never allowed to see. We had to set down her food in the faded dining room then retreat to the kitchen and close the door before she would leave her room. Not a very comforting thought before bedtime.

As luck would have it, on our first afternoon Miss Scarlett broke her own rule and invited us to take tea with her and fellow teacher “Miss Devenish” (in a wig with Edwardian curls) to discuss the philosophy of her group - The Romantics. Supposedly both graduates of Oxford, the two “educators” promoted strict Victorian values. I asked if men ever attended the school. Miss Scarlett put down her dainty teacup with a sigh: “We used to have men here but they made such a fuss when disciplined...”

“We used to have men here but they made such a fuss when disciplined...” Image: iStock.
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After tea it was back to being maids, serving the dinner and clearing away before climbing the dark and creaking stairs to bed. It was crazy cold and with no electricity we ate early and tried to sleep. Jacqui claims she heard human cries in the night. Impossible to say over the screaming winds coming off the Atlantic. The windows rattled and everything creaked and moaned.

The next day after breakfast we switched personas to schoolgirls. In class, Miss Scarlett stood in front of a wall covered in canes and switches. She explained the various transgressions that would see us “punished”. And if we were punished we had to say “Thank you Miss Scarlett”. In my effort to memorise a bit of Latin I failed to pay attention to the direction I had laid my pencil on the desk. Jeez. It was the wrong direction.

Miss Scarlett told me to stand and put out my hand. That cane over my palm was the most painful thing I had ever encountered. But in that moment my greatest fear was that I would snap that cane in two and throw Miss Scarlett through the window my pencil was supposed to face. I thought of my financial security and managed the required “thank you”. Only a few more hours until we could get out of there and into an Irish pub.

After we left the house we doubled back and door-knocked a few neighbors. A woman invited us in but told us to “hurry”. We identified ourselves as reporters. She was relieved. She thought we had escaped “like that poor other girl” – the one the local kids found crying at the phone box six months back and brought to her door.

Before that incident, no one in the village much cared about the women. Sure they were odd but they were so much quieter than the “screamers” who lived there before them – members of the cult, the Atlantis Commune. They were all about living in harmony with the environment but they practiced primal screaming as a cleansing thing. Two cults had used the same house in one tiny Irish fishing village? What are the odds?

We tracked down the woman who had escaped The Romantics and despite her parents being “well to do” she was only too happy to tell all about her “hell”. Her tale and photo covered most of the eventual double page feature. A photo of Jacqui and I fetching coal dressed in our Victorian school uniforms, and our “inside account”, was a minor part of the feature ... but now I’m skipping ahead.

We also visited the local “gardee” (police) who told us the woman under the stairs was facing a charge of assault and of possessing an illegal firearm. We had everything we needed for a “cracker yarn” – all that was left was the traditional tabloid confrontation. That’s the part where you go back and say, “Remember us? We are not S&M tourists but undercover tabloid journos. Gotcha!”

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Author, Kate Southam. Image: submitted.

I didn’t want to confront the women. Sure, there was the small matter of the gun-toting female under the stairs and Miss Scarlett’s arsenal of canes, but it wasn’t that. I felt bad about lying and judging them.

I called the news editor from our “holiday” at a Donegal pub. I said we were keen to do the confrontation but my parents wanted to know what kind of insurance cover I had just in case things got ugly. He fell silent, then told me to wait by the phone and hung up. About 15 minutes later he told us he was sending a couple of blokes to do the confrontation. We just had to write up what we had.

Poor Ian got the confrontation gig. Miss Scarlett and friends threw him down the front steps.

In researching this piece, I found out Miss Scarlett had friends disappeared a few years after we had been there. She had up to four aliases and had faced court for assault in the early 1990s. She and her group had been linked to neo-Nazis and a successful computer game featuring schoolgirl avatars. So much for shunning modern technology.

Now, please tell me you’ve done something more embarrassing or uncomfortable to earn a living.

Blogger and coach Kate Southam has specialised in employment and careers for more than a decade. She currently lives in the Blue Mountains with her hound Ella and has taken a leaf from the under 30s and is doing the portfolio career thing - coaching, writing, consulting and editing.
Kate started her career as a journalist and has worked for the Sydney Morning Herald, ABC Radio, the South China Morning Post in Hong Kong and as a freelancer in London. Her former weekly advice column Ask Kate was published by more than 100 newspapers.

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